Drivers caught in the act when they believe they are unobserved at the traffic lights, collectible toys from the cereal packets of yore, awkward dinner party conversations and the messy universe of the young are all in safe hands here. The snapshots of every day life provide glorious material for FULL BORE, another celebration by author William McInnes of what richness can be found in the small moments.
The author, in both writing and speaking mode, is a master at going off on a tangent and then circling back to his original rumination. McInnes can be a bit Douglas Adams ala THE HITCH HIKERS GUIDE TO THE GALAXY in this regard. You get the impression that nothing is wasted in this author’s day; all his small observations of the lives of others are retained and plopped into a basket of thoughts after which any may be usefully extracted as required. Having heard him speak several times at writers’ festivals, I can happily say that he can reproduce this whip smart narration on the spot at a moment’s notice – he is frighteningly sharp and probably quite terrifying to interview.
The scattered memoir books of McInnes are all similar in style and successful in drawing back Australian readers into what it was like growing up and maturing in the Australian suburbs. Sport features a fair bit. Random encounters with strangers provide a lot of whimsical material. So do the numerous snapshots featuring family, friends and colleagues. The latter category is quite vast as McInnes crammed a lot into his professional life whilst raising his kids and sometimes working alongside his late wife, Sarah Watt. Regardless of where McInnes sources his material from, it all manages to be relatable content.
McInnes always gives the impression that he takes nothing for granted and that all of life’s experiences are worthwhile. They might end up in a bestselling book one day. It is true – William McInnes is a born storyteller, spinner of yarns and writer of a solid collection of very entertaining books about Australian life. Funny to read and full of laconic warmth, these works will resonate, regardless from whatever piece of Australian it is that you hail from.
FULL BORE, as is with the other works by this author, does leave you feeling a little bit melancholic about our shared Australian past but reassures us that life goes on and that there will always be much more to experience. The best parts of it are still there in the every day and the bells and whistles were never what it was all about.
Review - Since We Fell, Dennis Lehane
I LOVED YOU
I HATED YOU
I NEVER KNEW YOU...
Rachel's husband adores her. When she hit rock bottom, he was there with her every step of the way as she slowly regained her confidence, and her sanity. But his mysterious behaviour forces her to probe for the truth about her beloved husband.
How can she feel certain that she ever knew him?
And was she right to ever trust him?
Dennis Lehane takes a swerve away from his long running Kenzie and Genaro series (which includes Gone, Baby Gone) and his recent prohibition and gangsters trilogy to deliver a psychological thriller of sorts. Since We Fell is a book that is hard to categorise. In some ways it is an extended character study and in others it is an extremely long con not only of some of the characters but of the reader. For that reason it takes a long time for the novel to really come into focus with some readers possibly only hanging in to resolve the strong opening hook.
Since We Fell opens with a bang, literally. Rachel shoots her husband on the deck of a boat and he flops over the side. Why she has taken the shot and what happens next will have to wait as Lehane takes us back to Rachel’s childhood and her difficult relationship with her mother. Following her mother’s death, Rachel goes on a years long search for the father that she never knew and who her mother refused to tell her about. Through this search she meets Brian, a private detective who, after much trauma on her part comes spectacularly back into her life.
The first two thirds of Since We Fell is essentially a character study of Rachel – the foundation of her deep anxieties and agoraphobia, her desire for safety and security, her extreme response when things don’t turn out the way she expects. Only some of which is really relevant for the final third of the book when the pieces fall into place and the action kicks in. At which point Since We Fell starts to feel like a different book altogether – full of violent goons, sleights of hand and plenty of gun play.
It feels like Lehane is trying to do too much in Since We Fell. The naturalistic exploration of Rachel’s mental state is undermined by the extreme suspension of disbelief needed to follow the plot. And again, in the final third of the book Rachel manages to throw off the burden of mental illness that she has been carrying in order to both forward that plot and be an effective actor in its resolution. The idea being, I think, that all she really needed was something bigger to focus on outside of her own worries.
The lengthy and detailed start of the book becomes irrelevant by about half way through, used only as a way to manoeuvre various characters into place. The original hook is almost forgotten by the time it rolls around again, with only some well-timed hints to keep the reader’s appetite whetted. And its resolution requires such a breathtaking suspension of disbelief that it skews the rest of the plot. The last third, while nominally exciting and well written does not feel it resolves any of the real issues that were raised earlier on and just leaves the reader constantly asking “but why…?”. So that in the end Since We Fell doesn’t work. There is definitely some psychology here but possibly not the psychological thriller that fans of Lehane’s work and of good thrillers more broadly would have been hoping for.
BOOK REVIEW - THE GIRL BEFORE, J.P. DELANEY
The title alone tells us that someone has died. We know that the girl who came before is going to exert an influence on the present-day protagonist; someone’s footsteps are going to be walked in once again. So how did the girl before come to her end?
The setting of THE GIRL BEFORE is all important and gives structure to a story that is essentially carried out with in four walls of one very spectacular and unusual house. There are shades of ‘Hal’ in this book too which are delicious, as in that an omnipresent technological mind is controlling the conditions thus manipulating the lives of the occupants of the house. Or is it really?
Poor self esteem, the classic pull of the bad boy and just seriously bad taste all come together to push the sanity of both past Emma, and present Jane. Is it an insult for an untidy person to occupy such a carefully crafted space or is the best creational work still in progress, as in the moulding of the occupant to the new home?
Author J.P. Delaney (a pseudonym) has written here a curiously oppressive work about two women who have occupied the same space in different periods of time. Both characters you literally wish to grab by the shoulders and deliver a good dressing down to, but both were chosen for their vulnerabilities and not their strengths. In this time where wanting less is a real angst of the privileged, the minimalistic setting of this book delivers its own clever and simmering threat of restraint, purposeful conduct and menace.
As in all best works of suspense, no one is quite who they seem and THE GIRL BEFORE deep dives into secret desires of three very modern people with frank aplomb. The ending does make you question just why you came to the conclusions that you did – maybe you overthought that one?
A very clever and absorbing book, THE GIRL BEFORE is a psychological thriller that delivers. Read the book now, as hopefully the big screen adaptation won’t be too far away.
Review - Tattletale, Sarah J. Naughton
Once upon a time, there was a little girl who believed in fairytales. Now she is out to get your happy ending.
One day changes Jody's life forever.
She has shut herself down, haunted by her memories and unable to trust anyone. But then she meets Abe, the perfect stranger next door and suddenly life seems full of possibility and hope.
If you happen to find yourself feeling slightly confused and muddled in the early chapters of TATTLETALE - hang in there. It takes a while for everyone and everything in this novel to fall into place, but once they do - hang on for the rest of the ride.
Using an unusual structure, and some really complicated character back-stories, TATTLETALE starts out with Mags receiving an unexpected phone call. Her estranged brother Abe is in hospital back in their native UK, and no-one seems to know what was behind his fall from the 4th floor of the converted church that he, Jody his fiancé and an array of neighbours all have flats within.
Megs feels compelled to head back to the UK, after many years working as a lawyer in the US, for reasons which are complicated and very emotional. It's obvious right from the start that the story of Mags and Abe's childhood is going to be fraught, but it seems that everybody here has similar baggage that they are lumping around. The woman by Abe's bedside - his fiancé Jody has her own troubled past, and she and Mags not only have to find a way to come to terms with Abe's condition, but with each other.
TATTLETALE has an intriguing plot, as Mags tries to find out more about the brother she hardly knows, and the truth behind the fall - was it suicide, an accident or an attempt on his life. All the while the crime may or may not be what happened to Abe. It could be part of the harrowing child sexual abuse and rape stories that are revealed as the narrative continues. It could really be a lot of other possibilities as things progress. One thing that TATTLETALE does particularly well is confuse and bewilder. An emotion the reader is quite free to assume that Mags is experiencing as well.
The character's portrayed are also complex and extremely believable. Mags is prickly, moody and wildly unpredictable at points. She's unsympathetic and yet she's there - at the side of a brother she's not seen for many years. There is much in her background that is revealed as the novel proceeds - and readers are left to decide if those revelations are enough to excuse the difficult persona. Jody is different, almost passive, and obviously profoundly troubled. Her concern and affection for Abe could be touching, or it could be uncomfortably cloying - it's left up to the reader to decide. Even the snippets of Abe's life, prior to the coma, are left open to reader interpretation. It seems he might possibly be hiding something - but whether or not you'll guess what that is before it's revealed is a combination of a keen eye for obscure details and a willingness to extrapolate.
In a novel that's likely to polarise opinions, there are a lot of twists and turns, and a lot of opportunities for the reader to like, dislike, feel sorry for and want to throttle so many of the characters that it becomes quite the roller-coaster ride. For this reader, nothing in TATTLETALE was quite what it seemed, nobody quite who they were supposed to be and everything just slightly worse than you could have hoped it would turn out to be. It was therefore, compelling and frequently discomforting reading.
Review - Kingdom of The Strong, Tony Cavanaugh
If you are a previous reader to this series, you will know that Darian Richards operates under the direction of his own personal moral code, as determined solely by him. He is not one of those battered and brooding protagonists – it is more that he has given up caring about the larger world and has contented himself with the concerns of his small circle of people. Once he commits, he commits.
Author Tony Cavanaugh has had a long and illustrious career in film and tv and thus brings that excellent crafting of place and character to his crime novels. All of his creations are wholly convincing and though sketched with typical Australian economy, they are entirely recognizable in their landscape.
KINGDOM OF THE STRONG is strongly anchored to the Melbourne setting and the reader is very much travelling along the streets with investigator Darian Richards. The same themes do thread through the novels in this series; loss, redemption, loyalty and betrayal and KINGDOM OF THE STRONG gives a little illumination to the before, as in what Darian was like when he was operating, albeit loosely, within the parameters of the Victorian police force.
Darian Richards is one of those crime fiction characters that you want to know more about with each series entry. Darian’s world is familiar yet his slant on it is not. KINGDOM OF THE STRONG is another strong novel in a compelling series that powers forward with Darian’s insight into what is visible on the surface, and the underside which perhaps might not be seen, but is always present.
Review - Ragdoll, Daniel Cole
A body is discovered with the dismembered parts of six victims stitched together like a puppet, nicknamed by the press as the 'ragdoll'.
Assigned to the shocking case are Detective William 'Wolf' Fawkes, recently reinstated to the London Met, and his former partner Detective Emily Baxter.
The 'Ragdoll Killer' taunts the police by releasing a list of names to the media, and the dates on which he intends to murder them.
With six people to save, can Fawkes and Baxter catch a killer when the world is watching their every move?
Frequent readers of crime fiction tend to be over some plot element or standard form or another. It's hard to avoid getting a little jaded when a particular structure shows up time and time again - and in my case it's been serial killers for sometime now. Which does at least mean that it's a discomfortingly nice surprise when you come across an interesting twist on the tired old form.
Which, of course means, that you've taken a punt on something with a blurb that's guaranteed to be off-putting. For this reader there was something about the author's bio and the blurb of RAGDOLL that hinted at something out of the ordinary. Mercifully there didn't seem to be slightest indication (nor eventuality) that time would be spent in the killer's head, whilst they explained their twisted little justifications ad infinitum. Whatever it was that made me pick up RAGDOLL though, thank goodness it was there. This is a brilliant book, and I'm acutely aware how dodgy that sounds, what with the whole serial killer thing and all.
That's not to say that there's not a hefty serving of ick about the discovery of dismembered human remains, sewn together and strung up like a puppet. Hence the "Ragdoll Killer" nomenclature from the press.
That's not to say that there's not a stressed, fragile, and flawed central character. In fact Detective Wolf Fawkes raises each of those to a new high, and adds highly suspect into the bargain. His offsider is the only person who can work with him for a whole heap of complicated, nuanced or blazingly obvious reasons.
And it's definitely not to say that there's not quite a headliner to the whole serial killer plot - what with a list of intended victims, and the dates of their deaths delivered straight into the hands of a slightly less than eager member of the press - she being the ex-wife of Wolf Fawkes and all. His is, after all, the last name on the list and the divorce wasn't that acrimonious.
RAGDOLL has a beautifully twisted storyline, peopled with wonderfully flawed human beings, delivered a break-neck pace. There's enough surprising twists and turns to the plot elements to allow the standard clichés - like the tension with upper echelons, and the difficulties in forming working partnerships - play out against suspicion and the sheer weirdness of having a list of victims who the police are desperately trying to identify and protect. Then there's the complication of connecting the dots between them. What do a series of seemingly random killings have to do with each other, and does that answer provide even the vaguest hint about a killer who is resourceful, cunning and very deadly.
It's been a while since finishing a debut book made me mildly miffed I'd have to wait a while for the second in the series. Particularly as the end of RAGDOLL does not in anyway telegraph where a second might be heading, let alone starting out. Which statement is trying to be deliberately tantalising because really this is a debut book everyone should be reading - serial killer allergy or not.
Review - Blood Wedding, Pierre Lamaitre
The slippage is a gradual process for Sophie Duget. Small incidents like forgetting where she has parked her car, returning books to the library unread, mislaying her purchases. Not too much too worry about on their own but put together, and happening more often, these little incidents depict a life unravelling. Sophie once led an ordered life once but if she is honest, it was coming part well before her husband passed away. What propels her forward into a life on the run is the murder of a small child in her care.
There is much of the before in this novel, and there is also much of the after. Sophie can’t run from herself but as she struggles to make sense of her new present, it becomes a delirious ride where the reader needs to establish what events are the direct result of Sophie’s own actions or those of another. Sophie’s struggles to make sense of all that is happening to her are quite moving and the righteous anger does build up when you realize the depth of her predicament and the depth of resourcefulness she is going to need in order to survive.
Translated from French to English, some of the language in this ebook is a little mechanical but the economies of that narrative style serve well to punctuate how Sophie’s situation is growing more desperate. BLOOD WEDDING gives itself away fairly early in the piece as to the “who” but the “why is always pretty muddy. The motive, surprisingly, is not that important and the reader fascination lies with how on earth Sophie is going to safely extricate herself from the labyrinth of lies and imagined truths.
There is also a sense of familiar uneasiness with some of the earlier experiences of Sophie’s; those occasions where you question your own memory and wonder whether the odd lapses are all just part of normal behaviour. As they escalate in seriousness with Sophie, it becomes a tense and unstoppable read to a dramatic but fitting conclusion.
BLOOD WEDDING is a great novel to take with you on your next long journey or to indulge in over one or two sittings. The time will fly!
Review - The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman, Mindy Mejia
Hattie Hoffman is the brightest of the bunch. A small town girl with big dreams, Hattie is counting the days until her high school graduation is all over and done with so she can proceed with the life that she really wants to lead; that of an aspiring actress in New York. Hattie loves her parents and enjoys hanging out with her friends but the Hattie they all see is an act. The real Hattie dwells within and is nothing like the girl everybody thinks they know.
THE LAST ACT OF HATTIE HOFFMAN has a lot of balls in the air at once and does an admirable job with the interplay. As with any small town crime, the suspects are taken out of a smaller pool and you are able to examine each viewpoint for clues. Flipping between past and present it features the viewpoint of Hattie, the Sherriff tasked with investigating her murder and that of the new person in town, Peter Lund. There are only a few small irks with this read. Perhaps it’s too much of a sensitive insight but it does veer close to victim blaming. The strength of this read is in the cast of characters, all unique and drawn with economic strokes but with warmth and purpose.
Ignore all the book comparisons as it doesn’t do this clever little mystery justice; it is all about the journey here and the big reveal is not the tantalizing part of the read. THE LAST ACT OF HATTIE HOFFMAN is a very satisfying read and deservedly one of the buzz books of the summer.
Review - The Whistler, John Grisham
The most corrupt judge in US history.
A young investigator with a secret informant.The electrifying new thriller.
Lacy Stoltz never expected to be in the firing line. Investigating judicial misconduct by Florida's one thousand judges, her cases so far have been relatively unexciting. That's until she meets Greg Myers, an indicted lawyer with an assumed name, who has an extraordinary tale to tell.
The Whistler is an issues novel that uses the framework of a legal procedural. In his recent Grey Mountain, Grisham took on the coal industry, in The Whistler it is the Indian-run casinos and the range of social and political issues that they raise. But in focussing too much on the issues he raises and their potential resolution, he loses sight of the need to for a legal thriller to thrill.
An informant (the whistleblower or ‘whistler’ of the title) brings a potential corruption case to the attention of the Florida Board of Judicial Conduct. The allegation is that a Florida judge has been working with an organised crime gang and has been instrumental over the years in helping establish and then keep in business a casino on Tappacola land. This not only included favourably ruling on land deals but also possibly having an innocent man sentenced to death in return for a cut of the casino profits. For BJC Investigator Lacy Stolz and her partner Hugo Hatch, this investigation promises to be the most far reaching of their careers. But as they start to investigate they soon find themselves well out of their depth and a target of criminal forces.
Despite some of the trappings of a thriller, The Whistler is rarely anything but a legal procedural. A combination of Board of Judicial Conduct investigation into a potentially corrupt judge and the FBI investigation into the organised crime group that she is working for. Grisham takes readers through the investigation – the lucky breaks, the building of a case, the presentation to the grand jury, the turning of key witnesses – step by step, occasionally providing the criminal’s point of view to solidify or explain some aspect of the plot. While there are undoubtedly some tragic and tense moments as the case builds, Grisham never loses sight of the legal processes that need to grind away to achieve a result.
This tale is made readable by Grisham’s experience in delivering an accessible description of those procedures, the way they operate and the complex web of corruption they are uncovering. His main characters, including Lacy, a strong middle age single woman are well drawn but have limited roles outside of furthering the investigation. And it is left to the minor characters including Lacy’s obnoxious but well resourced brother Gunther and her mysterious informant Greg Myers to add colour to the narrative.
The Whistler is John Grisham’s twenty-ninth legal thriller and once again shows that the formula which he practically invented in his early books – a combination of social commentary, legal shenanigans and fairly low key action that occasionally generates real thrills – is still working. But in The Whistler that formula doesn’t quite fire as it used to. Because after setting up for the bang of a thriller, The Whistler’s end game becomes a lengthy legal procedural whimper.
Review - Magpie Murders, Anthony Horowitz
When editor Susan Ryeland is given the tattered manuscript of Alan Conway's latest novel, she has little idea it will change her life. She's worked with the revered crime writer for years and his detective, Atticus Pund, is renowned for solving crimes in the sleepy English villages of the 1950s. As Susan knows only too well, vintage crime sells handsomely. It's just a shame that it means dealing with an author like Alan Conway...
In his latest book Anthony Horowitz tries to have several cakes and eat them all. The fictional work Magpie Murders is an Agatha Christie-style golden age detective novel that is embedded in a novel that is itself a bit of a homage to golden age detective novels. And while being two murder mysteries in one, it is also both a critique and a celebration of the public’s love of cosy English-style murder mysteries. All of which is no surprise coming as it does from the pen of the author who brought us on TV the likes of Midsomer Murders, Foyle’s War and Poirot and recently in novel form loving reconstructions of Conan Doyle (House of Silk and Moriarty) and Ian Fleming (Trigger Mortis – reviewed here).
Novelist Alan Conway has delivered his ninth Atticus Pünd novel to his publisher. As we learn in the cute frontpieces to the novel in the novel, Pünd is a famous literary detective in the mould of Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot and Lord Peter Wimsey. We get an introduction from Susan Ryeland, the editor of Magpie Murders, before the first six parts of the novel, a murder mystery set in the quaint English village of Saxby-on-Avon. The sixth part ends before the mystery is solved leaving both Susan and the reader in suspense. Susan then learns that Alan himself has committed suicide, complete with compelling suicide note. In her search to find the final chapter of the Magpie Murders manuscript she begins to suspect that Alan’s death itself may not be all that it seems.
Horowitz clearly loves Agatha Christie and was desperate to write a Christie-style novel without being accused of just mimicking her. So he creates both Conway and Pünd and gives the punters what they so clearly want: an English village, two deaths, including the death of someone that every villager had a reason to hate and an inscrutable slightly foreign detective who makes gnomic observations that turn out to be true. Later, just in case the reader missed them, one of the characters in the “real world” lists the multiple Christie homages there are not only in the Conway’s Magpie Murders but in his previous Pünd adventures. And when the music stops, Horowitz gives readers a modern version of the cosy mystery with a different victim who many people had a reason to want to kill and a second set of suspects who were all slightly echoed in the original text. And through this second part, criticisms of the form – the complete lack of real character development, very little in the way of any political or social subtext, and the overly complex plots, the fact that it is considered to be ‘real literature’. But none of these criticisms prevent Horowitz delivering exactly that… twice.
While it at first appears that this might be reinventing or reinvigorating this sub-genre of crime, this is just homage. Horowitz finds himself going through the same motions – murder, range of suspects all of whom have a motive, critical clue, reveal. The only difference is that Atticus Pünd seems to know the answer pretty much from the get go while Susan takes a little longer to get to her solution.
People who love the golden age of detective fiction, who, as Susan puts it, like to curl up with a cosy mystery when it is raining outside knowing that everything will be explained at the end, or who spend their Friday nights in Midsomer (a place which gets named checked far too many times in this novel) will love Magpie Murders. But those who are looking for something original in their crime fiction should look elsewhere.